Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows

Apr
07

Vancouver Day Five: Steveston – Richmond Nature Park – Jericho Beach

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harbor seal

Perfect weather for harbor seals today here in Vancouver. For us, the rain was a welcome excuse for a late start — it was 9:30 by the time I picked Soheil up.

We started in Steveston, where mew gulls streamed over on their way, I suppose, to feast on earthworms in the wet fields. There was a small selection of ducks on the river, including red-breasted mergansers, and we enjoyed lingering close views of glaucous-winged and Olympic gulls loafing in the drizzle.

Olympic gull glaucous-winged

Soon it was too damp for us, so we headed to a place I’d never visited, Richmond Nature Park.

Richmond Nature Park in the rain

fox sparrow

We found comfortably dry seats beneath one of the picnic shelters, and watched as rufous and Anna hummingbirds darted between rain drops and fox and song sparrows scratched up the seed knocked from the feeders by the spotted towhees and purple finches.

purple finch

Among the many Oregon juncos was an especially pretty bird with symmetrical facial crescents, as if it were wearing a Prevost ground sparrow mask.

Oregon junco

To our surprise, at one point the sun came out, and the birds celebrated — with a bath, of course.

fox sparrow

sooty fox sparrow, Richmond, BC

We took advantage of the sudden change in the weather for a quick walk in what looks like a very birdy area indeed, then hopped back into the car for the drive to Jericho Beach.

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Just a short walk from our apartment in Kitsilano, Jericho was my neighborhood “patch” when we lived in Vancouver, and I was excited to see it again — even if the rain did set in again just as we arrived (and even if they still seem to have done nothing, absolutely nothing, about the off-leash dog problem).

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Though it wasn’t overly birdy, it was great to be walking a portion of my familiar route, watching pelagic cormorants and common goldeneye in the water of English Bay and bushtits in the blossoming trees. We were surprised to see only American wigeon on a first scan of the small flock, but eventually we found a single Eurasian wigeon on the edge of the pond; I remember excitedly reporting one here on our very first day in Vancouver, only to learn with some dispatch that the species is more common in this area than just about anywhere else in North America.

The rain grew steadier.

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Of all the places to seek shelter in the city, the UBC Museum of Anthropology may still be my favorite.

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There is vastly too much to look at in a single visit, and I long ago gave up trying, adopting the strategy instead of just looking at one object or two in the knowledge that I’ll be back. After all, it had been only seven years between this visit and the one before….

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Yes, tempus fugit, and this week fugit faster than most.

Birds

Canada Goose, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser

elagic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant

Common Loon

 

Great Blue Heron

Northern Harrier, Cooper Hawk, Bald Eagle

 

Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove

Anna’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird

Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker

Peregrine Falcon

Northwestern Crow, Common Raven

Violet-green Swallow, Purple Martin

Black-capped Chickadee

Bushtit

Pacific Wren, Bewick Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

American Robin

European Starling

 

Oregon Towhee, Song Sparrow, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Oregon Junco, White-crowned Sparrow

Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird

House Finch, Purple Finch

Mammals

Eastern Gray Squirrel

European Rabbit

Harbor Seal

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Apr
03

Vancouver Day One: Steveston – Iona – Reifel Refuge

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DSC04607

What a blast! I picked Soheil up at his lodgings in Richmond a bit after 7:00 this morning, taking the time to enjoy northwestern crows on the way down; I’d expected rain, but there was just the barest hint of a sprinkle on my early morning drive, and though the chill never lifted, all day long we stayed dry — and even saw some sunshine by the time we enjoyed an early supper this evening under the watchful eyes of Ladner’s bald eagles.

I’d heard that white-winged crossbills were to be found in Steveston, so we zipped down there to start our morning’s birding. We stepped out of the car to the songs of Puget Sound white-crowned sparrows (yea) and Eurasian collared-doves (less yea), but after a few minutes of hearing and seeing nothing loxiac, walked the few feet down to the river. Glaucous-winged and mew gulls loafed on logs in the water, while several bald eagles kept the ducks busy; one of the eagles missed all the fun, assigned instead to incubating or brooding the contents of one of the huge riverside nests. A big, big-nosed pinniped moving through the water was probably a California sea lion.

rufous hummingbird

The lawn of the condo complex behind us was hopping, too. A suet feeder proved irresistible to a couple of pairs of bushtits, and the first of the day’s half dozen rufous hummingbirds was here, too — all but one of them were males, a couple of them in vigorous “shuttling” display.

varied thrush

The manicured bluegrass itself provided the feeding ground for a fine varied thrush, which eventually gave up being admired and flew up into the bare tree above our heads, where he sang several times that eeriest of Pacific northwest bird songs.

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The sparrow flock was shyer, but we had great looks at Lincoln, song, sooty foxgolden-crowned, and Puget Sound white-crowned sparrows, all popping out onto the grass to feed for a moment or two before taking refuge again in the hedge.

song sparrow morphna

Wonderful to be back in a place where golden-crowned is the most abundant passerellid, the song sparrows are red, and the fox sparrows are plain-headed.

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The biggest surprise was a flock of 34 swans that flew overhead, not trumpeting but whistling as they passed. I was too startled to make entirely certain that all of the birds were tundra swans or if perhaps there were just a few vocal birds of that species joining up with the much more expected trumpeters; tundras are rarish birds here, and we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. We would not see any trumpeter swans until the last stop of our day, when we found sixty or seventy loafing off Westham Island.

I could have spent the rest of the week there, and we will certainly drop back by at some point to have another listen for the crossbills, but there are even birdier, even more scenic sites around Vancouver than condominium parking lots.

Iona

With an eye on the tide tables, we dashed north to Iona, where spotted towhees, another rufous hummingbird, and a few hundred noisy snow geese greeted us. The ponds were full of water and full of ducks: pinwheeling northern shovelers, elegant northern pintail and ring-necked ducks, and busily feeding lesser scaup by the hundreds.

northern pintail

Sparrows of what were now the expected species fed on the roads, and flyovers included my first violet-green swallows of the year and a surprise western meadowlark.

If the meadowlark was a surprise, the American minks were a shock.

American mink

Soheil saw the first one while I was busy with song sparrows; a few minutes later we saw it or another, and a few minutes later three more or less together on the path. As we watched, one of them dropped into the water and re-emerged with a dead, probably long-dead, duck, holding it tight in its teeth as it dragged it backwards across the trail, only to lose its prize when an adult bald eagle dropped out of nowhere to steal the corpse and send the mink, lucky not to have been the eagle’s second course, scampering into the next pond.

We walked out and around the “outer” pond, where marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds were busy staking out their territories and a nice flock of tree and violet-green swallows skimmed and drank in front of us.

Iona outer pond

We’d planned to head out the jetty, too, but the rapidly ebbing tide and the cold breeze off the Salish Sea convinced us that there probably weren’t many birds out there anyway. So how about Reifel?

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The place was insane, as always, with the pushy half-tame mallards joined by ducks of several other species, sparrows, and blackbirds in the rush for birdseed.

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We braved our way through the madding crowd, pausing to admire a rare black-crowned night-heron at its sullen roost, and headed out to the foreshore. Another flock of snow geese did its best to deafen us, watched closely by as many as fifty-five bald eagles perched out on the tidal flat.

Oregon junco

The real show at Reifel this afternoon, though, was the northern harriers. We’d seen scattered birds all day here and there, but as afternoon ceded to early evening, the big cattail marshes gave up their store of long-winged hawks; eventually we were watching at least five, including two beautiful silver males. It made us wonder how many owls were waiting on the ground out there for the sun to set.

We wouldn’t find out: Reifel has an early curfew, and I was cold and hungry. We stopped in Ladner for supper, fish and chips while we watched eagles fly up and down the water out our window. In the sunshine. Tomorrow is going to be a great day!

Birds

Snow Goose, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron

Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk

Virginia Rail, American Coot

Killdeer

Wilson’s Snipe

Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove

Rufous Hummingbird

Northern Flicker

Northwestern Crow

Violet-green Swallow, Tree Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee

Bushtit

Marsh Wren

American Robin

Varied Thrush

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

Oregon Towhee, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Puget Sound Sparrow, Gambel’s Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Oregon Junco

Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird

House Finch, American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Mammals

American Mink

Eastern Gray Squirrel

California Sea Lion

 

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Mar
24

Other People’s Bird Books: A New Jersey Family

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This is Montclair State University’s copy of John Francis McDermott‘s edition of the 1843 journal of Edward Harris, friend, patron, and frequent field companion of John James Audubon.

Eleanor Darrach Sappington to D. d'Arcy Northwood

Like most of that library’s general natural history titles from mid-century, this book was a gift from J. D’Arcy and Anne Ardrey Northwood, familiar names indeed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey birding circles: D’Arcy was the first curator of Mill Grove, and the couple’s “ramshackle cottage” at Cape May would eventually become New Jersey Audubon’s Northwood Center.

But this particular volume has another layer of provenance, attested by the inscription to D’Arcy Northwood from Eleanor Darrach Sippington. Good old Google helped me pin her down as one of the six children of Susannah Ustick Harris and Alfred Darrach; Susannah Harris was one of the four children of Edward Harris and his second wife (and first cousin), Mary G. Ustick.

What made my smile especially broad on reading the inscription was the fact that I had the pleasure of dinner with another of Harris’s descendants a couple of years ago in the Bahamas. She is certainly too young to have known her cousin Eleanor, but the connection shows once again just how small the world of birding can be, not just in space but over time.

 

 

 

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Sep
16

Into the Hills

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Sylvan Lake

We arose this morning to temperatures a full 55 degrees lower than those we’d basked in in Denver. And fog. And mist, and a little rain, too.

All that changed, suddenly, miraculously, within moments of our arriving at our first stop for the day, Sylvan Lake, more than 6000 feet up in the Black Hills. First the clouds lightened, then lifted, and soon enough the sky was actually blue — a rare enough sight at this location, and one that we enjoyed to its fullest.

Sylvan Lake

We saw several good birds up there, including an adult broad-winged hawk, two squabbling sharp-shinned hawks, a Clark’s nutcracker, and a gray jay. As usual, though, it wasn’t the rarities and scarcities that truly made the morning, but rather one of the commonest birds of the area, and perhaps its most charming: the white-winged junco.

white-winged junco

I love seeing this species (!) at this locality because it calls to mind the story of Elliott Coues, Principal Danby of Custer High, and their new junco from Sylvan Lake.

Coues had been stationed at Fort Randall in the early 1870s, but he paid his first visit to the Black Hills in 1895. On September 16 of that year he wrote from “picturesque and romantic” Sylvan Lake, where he had installed himself for a month of “much-needed respite from work and worry.” Coues may have escaped worry, but his work was with him always, especially in a place as birdy as Sylvan Lake.

Two birds in particular caught Coues’s attention: the pinyon jay, “one of the commonest birds,” and the breeding junco, which the visiting ornithologist tentatively described as a new taxon to be named Danby’s junco, Junco hyemalis danbyi. The proposed subspecific epithet was chosen in honor of Durward E. Danby, principal of the high school in Custer, the faculty and students of which Coues happens to have addressed earlier in the day on that September 16.

Coues noted that the differences between the nominate slate-colored junco and the Black Hills bird were obvious even “at gunshot range”:

The impression is that of a large gray rather than blackish bird, with the dark color ofthe breast fading gradually into the white of the belly [and] the gray of the back overcast with a brownish wash; and some of them show an approach to the characters of aikeni [the white-winged junco] in having an imperfect wingbar formed by the white tips of the … secondary coverts.

Two years later, in the pages of the Auk, Coues recanted. The Danby’s junco, he affirmed, was “simply the young of” the white-winged. Even so, Coues found a silver lining in his having described the Sylvan Lake birds as new even provisionally:

The naming of the supposed new form will prove to have been not entirely in vain if it serves to emphasize the fact that [the white-winged junco] is so thoroughly distinct from [the slate-colored] that it can be recognized at any age,

even in individuals that lack the eponymous wing bars.

The bird could not be mistaken for hyemalis at any age; the ‘aspect’ in life, even at gunshot range, is distinctive; for one receives the impression of a large gray bird.

We confirmed that impression over and over this morning as we watched our white-wingeds, the descendants or at least near relatives of the very birds described from Sylvan Lake exactly 122 years ago today.

Sylvan Lake

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Jul
01

The Fifty-Eighth Supplement to the AOU Check-list

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Northern Shrike

It’s Christmas in July for most birders with the appearance of the now-annual Supplement to the AOU Check-list. This year, as always, Santa Claus giveth and Santa Claus taketh away. On balance, those who care about numbers will find their lists increasing. For the rest of us — for most of us — the yearly update is a chance to look into the workings of taxonomists and ornithologists as they toil to decipher the relationships among our birds.

thayer's gull 6

The greatest loss for listers is certainly that handsome gull “kind” known over the past 45 years as the Thayer gull. Jon Dunn and Van Remsen argued cogently, even devastatingly, that the research supporting full species status for the bird was thoroughly flawed, and that the “burden of proof” should be on those asserting its distinctness from the Iceland gull. To my memory, Dunn and Remsen’s is the only taxonomic proposal ever considered by the AOS committee to use the phrases “scientific misconduct.” The authors encourage further research into the taxonomy of the large herring-like gulls, but meanwhile, thayeri is reduced to a mere synonym. 

Eastern Willet

Some birders will probably be disappointed, too, by the committee’s having declined to accept a number of proposed splits and re-splits, some involving some of the most familiar birds on the continent. The willet remains a single species, as does the yellow-rumped warbler.

Myrtle Warbler


The eastern and western populations of the brown creeper, the Nashville warbler, and the Bell vireo were also sentenced to continued cohabitation.

But there are splits aplenty, too.

Baird's junco

The gorgeous little Baird junco gets its own box on the ticklist again, and the Talamanca hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama is once again treated as distinct from the northerly Rivoli hummingbird.

magnificent hummingbird

To my surprise, we also have a new crossbill species in North America. The Cassia crossbill (the English name commemorates the type locality, and is far better than the cutesy scientific name sinesciuris) breeds in the South Hills and Albion Mountains of Idaho. It is apparently sedentary, making identification perhaps a bit easier; the bird is said to be larger than other sympatric crossbills, and to have different calls and songs.

My surprise has nothing to do with the quality of the research establishing this as a distinct species: all this genetics stuff is way beyond me. But I did not expect any real movement in crossbill classification to be inspired by one taxon; I’d thought the committee might wait for a universal solution to these difficult problems. In any case, Burley had better be ready for an ornitho-influx.

great gray shrike

We also get a split in the “gray” shrike complex. The North American northern shrike is now considered specifically distinct from its Old World counterparts; its species epithet is once again borealis, the name given it by Vieillot in 1808.

Northern Harrier

Our northern harrier is also split from the hen harrier of Europe, under the Linnaean name Circus hudsonius. The name honors the employer of James Isham, who sent the first specimens to George Edwards in the 1740s.

Common Redpoll darkish

The number of birders dreading the lump of the redpolls was almost as great as that of those devoutly wishing its consummation. The resolution (for now) leaves us with three species in the United States and Canada, the hoary, common, and lesser redpolls, that last listed as accidental. The Acanthis debate is certain to outlive us all.

 Familiar at least as a target bird to observers in Middle America, the old Prevost ground sparrow is no more. In its place, we have the white-faced ground sparrow and the Cabanis ground sparrow, the former occupying a range from southern Mexico to Honduras and the latter restricted to Costa Rica’s Central and Turrialba Valleys. The two species differ conspicuously in head and breast pattern — conspicuously, that is, if you’re fortunate enough to get a good look at these often sneaky sparrows.

And speaking, inevitably, of sparrows, the American birds going under that slippery English label are now assigned to a family of their own, PasserellidaeIn this, the AOS follows the recent practice of nearly all ornithologists over the past five years. It seems likely that the name will be replaced in the near future by Arremonidae, which if valid has nomenclatural priority.

Yellow-breasted Chat

The nine-primaried oscines — the “songbirds” at the back of the bird books — have also been rearranged, giving us all a new sequence to memorize. (I understand that the new sequence will be used in the seventh edition of the National Geographic guide, coming in a few weeks.) The most notable taxonomic change here is certainly the elevation of the yellow-breasted chat to its own family, Icteriidae, occupying a position in the linear sequence just before the orioles and blackbirds, Icteridae. This is just the latest stage on a classificatory journey sure to continue for a long, long time.

There will be more to say, no doubt, when the complete text of the supplement is readily available on line. Meanwhile, much to ponder.

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